Ward’s heartbreaking novel explores the grim realities of Southern poverty
and the deep roots of racism. The tale is made all the more memorable by scenes of magical realism, hope rising above the paucity of human experience, images suffused with the light of spiritual truth, moments of clarity that transcend the harsh demands of a malnourished earth. Besides the character, there are soulful haunts that refuse to leave this world unsettled. But some of these folks are distracted--especially Leonie, anxious to start that long drive to the Mississippi’s State Penitentiary, Parchman
Farm. There, at long last, she will be reunited with Michael, the white father
of her children: thirteen-year-old Jojo, and Kayla, only three. As an addict, Leonie falls victim frequently to her demons, orbiting between Michael and a fix, slipping occasionally into a short-lived guilt for her lack of mothering.
Mothering comes easy to Mam, or did until the cancer struck, robbing her of time intended for grandbabies. Her job and the running of the farm falls to Big Joseph, who carries the burden of his impending loss of Maggie and his deep love for Jojo and Kayla. Big Joseph is teaching Jojo
to be a man, the two grown close. Jojo takes on the lessons his grandfather provides, deriving great comfort and the knowledge of home from this man. Jojo would rather stay on the farm with Big Joseph, but Leonie wakes him early, grabbing a sleepy Kayla as she heads for the car, stopping only to pick up her white girlfriend, Misty. It is Jojo who comforts Kayla as she gets sick on the way, unable to keep anything in her stomach and burning with fever. After an overnight stop and a yearned-for fix, they arrive at Parchman. Michael walks out of a place that stinks of wrongness, embracing Leonie and Jojo. Kayla
is only willing to cling to her brother, the person she trusts most in the world.
The ride home seems to take forever. Jojo watches, learning lessons about his mother and father and the cold fear of a policeman stopping them in search of some reason to find them guilty.
He draws his gun on Jojo, who holds his breath as Kayla screams. Finally back, Jojo bursts from the car with Kayla, headed toward the old man, who speaks without words, his touch enough. Before long, Leonie is yearning to leave, asking her mother with her eyes, no words. Maggie knows the girl must go
but has no place here and nothing to give her children. The old woman is near the end but a little time away from her release from pain.
There have been others along the way, seen only by some, Leonie and Jojo, each with purpose: Leonie’s brother, Given, watching her, reminding her what she is choosing; and Ritchie, released from Parchman only by death, soothed by the kindness of Big Joseph when he was there. Jojo meets Ritchie on the way back from Parchman but can’t understand what Ritchie wants, refusing to listen when Ritchie demands to see Big Joseph.
As the hours pass and Maggie is called, everything is clear. Given follows his sister, Ritchie’s demands ignored. The haunts leave, an old man grieves his cherished wife, reaches a comforting hand to his grandson, a boy becoming a man, Kayla sleeping with the innocence of babies.
Ward fills me with gratitude for a story bravely told in language both fearless and bleak, pain tempered with kindness, a place where ease is hard-won and love can save a child from the world’s chaos. I entered this home for a while, left soon after an old woman passed.